July 25, 2016
Tom Clerkin met the Paulist Fathers as a student at West Virginia University in Morgantown and the seeds of a priestly vocation were planted.
“I was inspired by their homilies, their sermons,” recalled Father Clerkin, who attended Mass at the University Catholic Center that was staffed by the Paulists at the time.
“I started thinking about [the priesthood], and then thought I’d give it a try,” he said. “I knew I liked helping people and working with people, and figured the Paulists would be a natural fit for me.”
Father Clerking celebrated the 30th anniversary of his ordination in 2015.
The Long Island, NY, native grew up in Cure of Ars Parish and graduated from West Virginia in 1978 with a degree in sociology and counseling. He entered the Paulist novitiate at Mount Paul in Oak Ridge, NJ, in August 1979.
“It was a good experience,” Father Clerkin said of the Paulist novitiate. “It was large and diverse group of men with a lot of interesting characters. It was a good opportunity to see if this was the right calling for me.”
Part of that discovery for Father Clerkin included a Lenten assignment at Boston University during his novice year.
“I loved it,” he said. “It was the first time I had the chance to preach publicly and tach classes. It was a time to explore and share my faith with college-age people.”
Father Clerkin headed to Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., after his novitiate experience.
“I loved the pastoral ministry and sacred theology classes,” he said, “and the summer assignments I had in Memphis and New York City.”
One of the requirements for priesthood is clinical pastoral education (CPE), an experience that would resonate throughout the rest of Father Clerkin’s priesthood. CPE brings theological students and ministers of all faiths into supervised encounter with persons in crisis, usually in a hospital setting. The year was 1984, and the prejudice and fear of the growing AIDS crisis had a firm grip on the American psyche. Father Clerkin was assigned to work with Father Pat Traynor, CSP, at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. The unit in which they ministered was assigned to men with AIDS.
“There were so many questions about it and how you get it,” Father Clerkin recalled. “It was really exploding, and no one really knew how to deal with it. There was a lot of fear at that time.”
Many people believed AIDS was God’s wrath on the gay community for their sins, according to Father Clerkin.
“They felt isolated from their family, from society in general and even from religion,” he said. “I really enjoyed working with them and dispelling those myths and connecting them with the notion of God’s forgiveness and compassion. Because of the lack of knowledge and fear, they were even put in isolation units, and didn’t have a lot of human contact. Sometimes I was the only non-medial person they saw, the only person to visit, to talk to them, to listen, to reassure them and give them comfort and hope.”
Father Clerkin was ordained in 1985 at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan. He spent the summer after his ordination serving as associate pastor at St. Paul before heading to St. Patrick Church in Memphis from 1985 to 1987. He served as associate pastor at Old St. Mary’s in Chicago from 1987 to 1988.
In 1994, Father Clerkin became associate pastor at St. Austin in Austin, Tex., before returning to hospital chaplaincy, serving for three years at New York Presbyterian’s Allen Pavilion. He ministered to injured firefighters in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York.
“That was a surreal experience,” he said. “The firefighters would get hurt going through the rubble trying to find people. It was a time of great confusion, worry, anger and fear.”
Father Clerkin later left New York to return to UCLA Medical Center where he served as a hospital chaplain for Catholics and people of other faith traditions.
“About one-third of our patients, families and staff are Catholic,” he said. “There are between 140 and 170 Catholic patients in this hospital on any given day. My main ministry is being present and being willing to listen to the stories of what people are going through. The ministry is wonderful.”